Interview Robert De Niro

De Niro and Pacino, are back together on screen this weekend in Righteous Kill


Part Irish, Italian, German, Dutch, French and English, Robert DeNiro has been marked out as a legendary perfectionist who has a confirmed belief that there is an inextricable link between life and art. Aged 65, he has emerged as one of the great screen actors of his generation, a two-time Oscar winner with such landmark films as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter and Raging Bull and he has successfully gone behind the camera. De Niro has always been notoriously reticent about his private life.

De Niro returns to familiar territory opposite Al Pacino in the police crime thriller Righteous Kill, opening in Ireland this weekend. He and Pacino previously worked together in 1995, in Heat and their brief scenes were memorable. The new thriller was a project De Niro pushed to get made. “It was something that came along and I mentioned it to Al and he was interested,” De Niro says. “In Heat, we only had one scene together, which is my favourite scene in the movie; I thought it was well written and was a great scene to watch, so I wanted to build on that.” They play two veteran New York City detectives who work to identify the possible connection between a recent murder and a case they believe they solved years ago. Is there a serial killer on the loose, and did they perhaps put the wrong person behind bars?


Away from making movies, De Niro has emerged as rather a film festival connoisseur who set up his own Tribeca Film Festival as part of a plan to regenerate the downtown area of the city in the aftermath of 9/11. It has rapidly acquired a reputation as a serious and exciting date on the crowded calendar.


“I left a meeting right after they hit the World Trade Centre. I went to my apartment, which looks south, and I watched it out of my window. I could see the line of fire across the North Tower. I had my binoculars and a video camera – though I didn’t want to video it. I saw a few people jump. Then I saw the South Tower go. It was so un-real, I had to confirm it by immediately looking at the television screen. CNN was on. That was the only way to make it real. Like my son said, ‘It was like watching the moon fall.'”


The actor recently decided to quit his long-time agency Creative Artists Agency (CAA) which resulted in a vindictive email from one of the staff, berating De Niro for having too good an opinion of his own worth and box office appeal and being ungrateful for the roles that CAA had put his way in such box office hits as Analyze This or Meet the Parents. The email also pointed that De Niro was over the hill as far as the younger generation of film-goers was concerned. Rather than get shirty or sulky as he might have done in the past he replies simply: “There are certain facts about it that are just inaccurate. I don’t know what to say. I hate to think the email came from someone at CAA, because I felt it was beneath them. It’s like an obscene telephone call. You just don’t know where it comes from.”


Did he ever suffer from feelings of rejection when he was starting out as a jobbing actor desperate for work. “I didn’t have a problem with rejection, because when you go into an audition, you’re rejected already. There are hundreds of other actors. You’re behind the eight ball when you go in there. At this point in my career, I don’t have to deal with audition rejections. So I get my rejection from other things. My children can make me feel rejected. They can humble you pretty quick.


“It’s true: I spent lunchtime in a grave during the filming of Bloody Mama. When you’re younger, you feel that’s what you need to do things to help you stay in character. When you get older, you become more confident, and less intense about it – and you can achieve the same effect. You might even be able to achieve more if you take your mind off it, because you’re relaxed. That’s the key to it all. When you’re relaxed and confident, you get the good stuff. The hardest thing about being famous is that people are always nice to you. You’re in a conversation and everybody’s agreeing with what you’re saying – even if you say something totally crazy. You need people who can tell you what you don’t want to hear.


“Movies are hard work. The public doesn’t see that. The critics don’t see it. But they’re a lot of work. When I’m directing a great dramatic scene, part of me is saying, “Thank God I don’t have to do that.” Because I know how fucking hard it is to act. It’s the middle of the night. It’s freezing. You gotta do this scene. You gotta get it up to get to that point. And yet, as a director you’ve got to get the actors to that point. It’s hard either way.”


He relishes the new horizons that have opened up to him on the other side of the camera. He says: “I like directing. With The Good Shepherd it took me years to get things going. I would have done it earlier. I started nine or ten years ago and it really took that long to get it going. I’d like to do a couple of other films. A ‘next episode’ of The Good Shepherd, which goes from 1961 with the Berlin Wall going up to 1989, with the Wall coming down. Then I’d like to do a third film from 1989 to the present. I’d like to make it a trilogy.


“It was a complicated project because it was owned by certain people and it had to be reworked. Then I had to get the actors. I was thinking of Leonardo DiCaprio, but when I started the search he was too young to approach. Then years later he was going off to do The Departed with Marty [Martin Scorsese] and I couldn’t stop the momentum at that point. So then I approached Matt Damon. I had another actor who also was wonderful but I couldn’t get the movie made with just him in it, because it was an ambitious project. I needed someone like Leo or Matt with star power just to get the financing.”


He would love to work with Scorsese again, the pair have a couple of projects under wraps. “Yes, we have one project in particular that we want to do. We’ve done eight movies together and I’d like to do another couple with him, at the very least. We’re going to do this project in a year or two. I’m superstitious about talking about it, but it’s supposed to be happening. Marty listens. He’s open to unexpected things on that – this is a flowery way of saying it – on that voyage. He takes ideas, and he’s not afraid to try them. “


Trying to pin down De Niro about the art of his craft makes him become decidedly elusive. “Ultimately, acting is what you make of it and how smart you are in your choices. An actor like Matt Damon is very conscientious and works very, very hard but I don’t know what his formal training was. Whatever works for you… everybody comes at it from a different position.”


Righteous Kill is at Irish Cinemas from September 26th